“The Vault” and the History Web on Slate

The popular generalist online magazine Slate has a robust presence on what scholars Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel J. Cohen have termed the “History Web.” Slate frequently publishes posts that place current events or popular culture in historical context. With Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump apparently reluctant to distance himself from the endorsement of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, Slate posted a long account of the eradication of the first Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s. The success of the Oscar-winning movie The Revenant prompted a piece about Americans’ long fascination with the myth of Hugh Glass, which the film retells. The site even hosts a paywalled online course on the “History of American Slavery,” a collaboration of Slate writers Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion with renowned scholars of the Civil War. A subscription gets you nine podcast episodes; primary and secondary sources on the topic; excerpts from books by leading scholars; and a private discussion group for participants to engage with each other and the material. The Slate Academy material combines all the genres of the History Web mentioned by Rosenzweig and Cohen; archive, secondary source, educational, and discussion. More traditional textual material is accompanied by innovative maps and timelines that take advantage of the potential Cohen and Rosenzweig saw, in 2006, for digital history projects.

Since Slate Academy is behind a paywall, I’ll also discuss an open-access area of the site’s history content, the blog The Vault, another project of writer and American Studies PhD Rebecca Onion. The Vault (tagline: “Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights”) is at first glance a collection of historical ephemera, well-conceived to appeal to Slate‘s regular audience. With short posts and catchy headlines, the blog usually features an image, map, document, or other artifact that readers might find odd or interesting to glance over, accompanied by a write-up that places it into historical context.

However, the Vault accomplishes more than just sharing “historical oddities.” By linking to the online databases where she finds her material, and often featuring whole collections or innovative digital history projects, Onion helps to aggregate and share the work of a diverse “History Web.” In addition, the blog boasts features that are designed to make it useful as a cohesive learning tool, or a jumping off point for future research. For example, Onion recently added a timeline that displays all the documents the Vault has posted in its three-year existence, in chronological order.

Each entry links to the archive where it’s hosted, and also to one or more “related” posts, making chronological and thematic connections easier. The goal, in her words, is to combat the fact that the Internet is a “relentless decontextualizer.” In her post introducing the new tool, she writes that she found the process revealing: for example, a preponderance of posts about the late 19th and early 20th centuries corresponds to her own academic interests as well as the availability of public domain material from that era. This kind of analysis is exactly what Cohen and Rosenzweig point to as the great potential of digital tools for historians: the ability to aggregate, rearrange, and therefore gain new substantive insight into historical materials that are themselves the same.

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